Thursday, April 27, 2006


New Orleans: April 26

Rather than travel to Lafayette, Michael and I decided to stay in New Orleans and see more of the damage caused by Katrina. My friend Mel Zimmer, who lives across the Mississippi River in Gretna on what's known as the West Bank, was our guide.

Yesterday, we checked out the devastated Lakeview neighborhood around the 17th St. Canal; today, we drive east to the areas that were flooded by the Industrial Canal - Lower 9th Ward, Chalmette, Arabi, St. Bernard Parish and the coastal wetlands in Delacroix. Again, we're not prepared for what we see. "The storm destroyed the entire St. Bernard community, all but four of the 26,000 houses," today's Times-Picayune reported. Consider the sheer enormity of that statement. It's true. Block after block of houses are totaled, twisted into implausible shapes. Some are completely leveled, others are in disarray but still standing. It's hard to believe they'll ever be repaired. In the Lower 9th Ward area, homeowners have until August 29 to gut their houses or the government will do it for them. Placards for "HOUSE GUTTING" and "MOLD CLEANING" are everywhere.

There is, however, a ray of hope in all of this despair. As we zig-zag through the Lower 9th Ward, we come upon a pretty house painted blue with flowers planted in the front of the building and a sign, "COMMON GROUND," advertising a community center. A meeting is going on. "We need water," one resident declares. "We need to figure out how to get it." About 12 people sit around talking. Common Ground is a non-profit charitable orgainzation run by Malik Raheem. One of the volunteers Sierra Wild visited New Orleans last December and stayed on to help run Common Ground. "I blew off my entire life," she says.

Connie and Happy Hathway invite us to visit their home at 1006 Lamanche. It doesn't look too bad, but is still uninhabitable. The most obvious damage is to the garage, which is lifted off its foundation in the rear. Right now they're living in a trailer outside their machine shop in Metarie. "This neighborhood lost a lot of people," Happy says. "The're still finding them."

Before Katrina, they evacuated to Atlanta. Six and half weeks later, they returned. "We wanted to be here when they let us in." Happy recalls. On a Wednesday morning at 7 am late in October, the Hathaways attempted to enter their severely damaged house. "The door fell off the hinges," Connie says. "It was one big soup."

Each day they make progress, fixing the wooden slats the house was built with in the 1920s. "Happy firmly believes that cleaning the slats will help with the intergrity of our home," Connie explains. She says they've refused FEMA's assistance and prefer to do the work themselves. "The big probelm is water." she adds. "We're bringing in our own water system next week." Even if they do provide their own water, the area's still without electricity.

We continue our "disaster tour," as Mel calls it. Like every resident of New Orleans and its surrounding areas, Mel has his own Katrina story. He evacuated to northern Mississippi on August 29, then went to Baton Rouge before twice attempting to get to his house in Gretna. First time he was turned back, but the second time they let him through. The roof of Mel's house looked liked a a giant scoop had been taken out of it. Though Gretna didn't flood, wind damage from the storm created havoc. "What I remember most was how quiet it was," he says. "I couldn't even hear a bird."

As we head further south to witness MRGO (or "Mr. Go" as he and others call the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet) that feeds water from the gulf into the mighty Mississippi, we motor past non-functioning stop lights and survey the endless array of brokedown houses and business establishments, such as McDonald's, Taco Bell and KFC. While one business promises, "WILL OPEN," another implores, "CRUSH - PLEASE REMOVE!"

Mel wants us to see MRGO, which he and others believe was the real reason for Katrina's staggering wave of destruction. Just yesterday, five area residents sued the Army Corps of Engineers in Federal court, charging that MRGO "eroded wetlands that had slowed storms down and turned the ship channel into a superhighway that funneled Katrina's powerful tidal surges toward them, breaking levees along the way," according to the Times-Picayune. "The United States government destroyed New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish," contends LA attorney Pierce O'Donnell, who claims the corps "ignored warnings as far back as the MRGO's inception in 1958 that it could cause vast ecological damage."

In a separate class-action suit filed on Monday, Katrina evacuee Phillip Reed argues that the "flooding was aggravated by years of dredging the waterway, [damaging] manmade and natural flood-protection systems surrounding Orleans and St. Bernard parishes."

The road to nowhere (southeast to Delacroix) adds to the nightmarish landscape, with boats and houses picked clean by the flood waters and wind. There is some business activity, as workers hoist oyster bags ($15 per bag of 80-100 oysters) onto waiting tractor trailers. Otherwise, little life seems to exist along the waterway. We stop at one point to admire the city skyline in the distance, shimmering in a reddish sunset. As we stare at the water, fish leap in the air in an aquatic ballet. On a day in which we've observed some of the worst destruction imaginable, the flying fish make us smile.

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